Reclaiming a Plundered Past. Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq
Magnus Bernhardsson (University of Texas Press, 2005)
Interview with author, by Tela Zasloff
Magnus Bernhardsson describes his choice of subject for his book, as the result of both a disappointment and a lucky coincidence. He initially chose as his topic the reception of Darwin in the Arab world, but lost his enthusiasm after learning that topic had already been submitted as a dissertation. Then, while casually touring the Yale Sterling Memorial Library, he was struck, in the Babylonian collection, by a poster advertising a Babylonian Festival in Iraq, at which Saddam Hussein was promoting his government by inviting scholars to come see the ruins of Babylon. Alongside the profile shot of Saddam Hussein on the poster, was a profile that Hussein claimed was Nebuchadnezzar. So Magnus asked his advisor, “Why do you think Saddam Hussein thinks he is Nebuchadnezzar?” His advisor said, “That’s a great question and I think you should write about it.” This started Magnus on his research path, asking how the founding of the modern state of Iraq, from 1921 up to World War II, demonstrates that country’s use of its ancient history for modern political purposes.
This story, weaving together archaeology and the politics of nationalism, is dramatically told, worth reading slowly, writing marginal notes as you do so, and studying the old photographs and excerpts of personal letters and published reports. Iraq swept into our American consciousness with the U.S. invasion in 2003, then caught our attention further when the U.S. failed to prevent the unprecedented looting of the precious artifacts in the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. The importance of this event to Iraqi self-definition is clear from the cover photo of the book, showing an Iraqi museum director sitting on the rubble of the destroyed artifacts, holding his head in his hands. Archaeology, when applied by Westerners to the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries, acted as a double-edged sword: The treasures it unearthed, particularly from ancient Mesopotamia—the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Assyrians—enriched the Western museums and knowledge of the ancient world. But it also provided the Middle Eastern nations of the 20th century a way to build new national identities that sought independence from the Western imperial powers. Prior to WWI, the British, the French and the Germans had gone into the Middle East and taken, with little resistance from the local population, many ancient treasures. After WWI, the Turkish Ottoman empire, defeated, was cut up into new states, under the League of Nations’ mandated protectorships and to the advantage of the victorious European nations in terms of oil resources and strategic boundaries. The European countries now faced more resistance to their taking home ancient treasures, severely reducing the supply to the Western museums. By the 1920’s and 30’s the new nations, including Iraq, started considering that, although they had no direct cultural ties to these ancient peoples, these treasures were part of their heritage and their land, that the foreigners were not only exploiting their cultural heritage but taking out their most precious natural resource, oil.
The single most important British presence in the new Iraqi government during this period, who comes alive in this book through her vivid writing, was Gertrude Bell. (A Werner Herzog film is coming out soon on Gertrude Bell, “Queen of the Desert”, starring Nicole Kidman.) She was an intimidating intellectual force, the right hand to the Iraqi king while protecting British interests, and set the foundation for preserving the ancient treasures. She continually faced a complicated issue—who owned those treasures? The British argued that these artifacts—the alphabets, the agricultural systems, the Biblical sources—belong to all cultures. The Iraqis answered, “This is our history, they belong to us.” But the British creation of Iraq was based, not on any common cultural identity among the people, but rather British self-interest. They cobbled together three areas very different economically and socially—in the north are the Kurds who speak an Indo-European language, in the south, both the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, all told they are one country and should follow this new king brought in from the Arabian peninsula. The British wanted one administrative unit that would transport the oil in the north to the south, and would also serve as a buffer state between possible French or German incursions into India, still the British crown jewel.
The importance of archaeology to nation building applies to countries around the world—the Angkor temples of the Khmer empire to Cambodia, Masada to Israel, the pyramids to Egypt, the Parthenon Elgin Marbles to Greece, the Indian ruins to Latin American nations. Magnus comments: “All over the world, you will find similar stories of an earlier period when foreigners could take away artifacts, then the new state develops institutions that begin to appreciate the value of these sites, not only as selectively chosen sources for their national identity but also for commercial tourism. Any time a nation occupies another nation, it is highly problematic. The British did lay the foundations for many modern institutions in Iraq that have long outlived them. And the British and Western archaeological discoveries there have helped persuade some present-day Iraqi nationalists that they are one nation. But there’s always a disconnect between your views and the views of the people you are occupying. And once the occupying power leaves, it tends to be a very messy affair.”
Magnus comments on Gertrude Bell:
Unfortunately she was born in 1868 instead of 1968. She was the first woman to finish a degree in history at Oxford, so much more talented than her male counterparts. She terrified the men of her time because she was such an intellectual force. She was a daughter of privilege, a traveler, so instead of marrying and settling down in Victorian England, she found her liberation in the deserts of Arabia and all over the Middle East. Also, people of her class felt oppressed by British society of the time where there was very little movement. Then you go into the Middle East where there is endless space—into the desert and this whole expanse. It must have felt so liberating. She mastered Persian and Arabic, and during WWI, she was very active in the British front in the Middle East and at the Cairo Conference of 1919, which determined the borders of the British portion of the Middle East. She became responsible for creating Iraq and making sure that the creation would be seamless, while protecting British interests. After WWI, the British couldn’t afford to establish a new nation with the same expense and effort as they had done in India—they had to do it on the cheap. She devised the strategy of being behind the scenes, although still making the important decisions. She became the right-hand person to the Iraqi king, who was a foreigner to Iraq, who didn’t speak the local languages or know the people; he relied on her. For two or three years, she was the most influential person in the country.
Her letters were amazing. Everyone described her as being very opinionated but charming and a great conversationalist who knew something about everything. But she was also a demanding person with very high standards for herself. This intimidated a lot of people. I think she felt trapped in a woman’s body. She had very little patience for the ambassadors’ wives, for example, and she would often have to sit with the women. She, in fact, worked against the suffragette movement in England for a year because she felt women didn’t have the capacity to vote. Then, around 1924, her role as the right-hand person started to diminish and that’s when she focused on the archaeology of the country. She set the foundation of preserving the ancient history of Iraq for years to come.
Why her apparent suicide in 1926? Maybe because she was sensing her time in Iraq was coming to an end. She was in her early 50’s, in declining health and unmarried, and didn’t see a personal or political future for herself as an unmarried, upper class woman in England.